Right now my son likes games of chase and peekaboo. He’s a big fan of ducks. When he’s happy, he laughs. When he’s sad, he cries. And that’s just fine with everyone because he is only a year old.
However, there will come a time when the world at large feels entitled to an opinion on his emotions. When he will be told that he should “be happy,” to “buck up,” “cheer up,” or worst of all, “man up.” There will come a time when his sadness is deemed inappropriate.
I am familiar with such times. In fact, I experienced one not long after I had my son. While family beamed, friends congratulated, and strangers cooed, I cried. Unwrapping cheerful gifts and reading warm cards describing the “best time of my life,” I cried. Finally talking to the doctor about postpartum depression, I broke down and I cried. I had a healthy baby. I was blessed. I was lucky. I was miserable.
I felt like if I wasn’t happy, I was ungrateful, a bad mom, a bad wife. I felt like I owed happiness to my husband and son. I felt like I owed happiness to all the people trying so hard to make me happy. I reached and reached and reached and came up on empty. That’s when my mother gently but firmly escorted me to a doctor and sat me down for a long talk.
I got help for my postpartum depression from medical professionals and a wonderful support system at home. As I started to get better, I realized that wanting happiness didn’t give me the capabilities to feel it. I realized that lacking those capabilities didn’t say anything about me or my love for my family. I became OK with being sad and just surviving in the moment rather than trying to force the happiness to come. And then not so much later, I found my joy again.
I crawled out of that hole and I am better and stronger for experiencing it (not that this is everyone’s experience, but it was so for me). And it’s important to me that my son know this part of my life.
When he is old enough to understand, I want to be able to tell him that:
1. It’s OK to hurt. It’s OK to hurt publicly. Even if other people don’t think so. Even if it’s “not the right time”—whatever that means. Your emotions are not up for vote, and you do not owe happiness to anyone. Emotions don’t always arrive prepackaged and nicely in context. And they can’t always be fixed. Sometimes the very best we can do is survive and that is OK, too.
2. It’s OK to get help. It takes an incredibly strong person to know when to lean on someone else. Recognize the shoulders that are offered (you will always have mine) and don’t think you have to go it alone.
3. It’s OK to cry. This can be a tough one for boys, though I like to think we are slowly moving away from that. Again, the face you show the world is not a debt you owe the world. Tears can be a cry for help or a battle cry. They can be both. We cried together at a time that was incredibly challenging for both of us. You, new to the world. Me, new to the reality of you. The many tears I shed made room in my heart for laughter and love. Although I don’t miss them, I certainly don’t regret them. I hope you never regret yours.
Finally I want my son to know that he doesn’t have to cover up the bumps in the road—mental, physical, or emotional—not for me and not for anyone. I had postpartum depression. It wasn’t pretty or poetic or even palatable. It was a nasty, hateful disease that challenged me and everyone I love to the core. I suffered. I survived. I thrive.
Life will challenge my son in his turn; it challenges everyone. I want him to face those challenges in whatever way makes sense to him. To curse or cry as he will. I give him my experiences in the hope that they will set him free.